Peter Jones: Vision of an independent republic

Peter Jones: Vision of an independent republic
The Scotsman

Aileen Campbell’s admission that she would prefer an independent Scotland to be a republic is extremely interesting – all the more so because she is a minister in Alex Salmond’s government. I think I spy a kite being flown on behalf of Mr Salmond, one that may have quite a lot of referendum tags on its tail.

As quite a few people have noted, he has a bit of a problem with the kind of independent Scotland that he wants people to vote for. In order to make it as acceptable as possible to as many voters as possible, he has said that there will still be a monarchy, everyone will still have pounds in their pocket, will still live under Nato’s nuclear defensive umbrella, will still be part of the European Union and will still rely on the Bank of England for central banking work.

Let’s assume that, despite hostile words from Chancellor George Osborne and others of a unionist ilk, this is actually achievable. The problem is that to rather a lot of nationalists, this doesn’t look like the independence they expect. It looks all too dismally like a little Britain.

This, as George Kerevan, a committed nationalist, has written refreshingly honestly in these pages, is dispiriting for many nationalists. They believe that Britain is a failed state, will continue to fail and that independence doesn’t just mean getting out of Britain, but also setting up a new state that will cast off much of the baggage that is either associated with, or is causing, Britain’s failure.

But Mr Salmond’s Scotland still has lots of these encumbrances. It means that the independence he proposes is, to many nationalists, rather drab. It does not offer the kind of vision of a new and dynamic state that is capable of inspiring the uncommitted into thinking “wow, that’s exciting and worth voting for”.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that any nationalist who believes that Scotland should not have the Queen as head of state, should have its own currency, should not be part of Nato, etc, won’t vote Yes.

It does mean, however, that they may not campaign for others to vote Yes with the degree of enthusiasm that looks to be required to overcome the big opinion poll lead that the No campaign has.

Ms Campbell’s kite, if indeed that is what it is, suggests a solution. In a recent BBC Three programme, she said: “The Scottish Government’s position is that, after a Yes vote next year, the Queen would remain the head of state but, like many people in Scotland, I believe the sovereignty of people is a very important thing so it would be up to people to decide whether or not that would remain the case thereafter.”

She added that “a Yes vote next year will allow us and enable us to take the decisions about what that country would look like, how it would feel and that includes about deciding who is the future head of state”.

The implication is pretty clear – there could well be a referendum on continuing with the monarchy at some point after Scotland becomes independent, envisaged for 2016. But note that she said “decisions” plural. So there could well be other referendums, on Nato or EU membership, for example.

How would this work? We could look to California for a lead. The United States, being a federation, allows its states a great deal of political autonomy. California has its own constitution which, since 1849, has provided for direct democracy in the shape of referendums.

Currently, there are three types. A “mandatory” referendum is held when the state legislature decides that the constitution should be amended. But politicians do not have a monopoly on referendums. The people have their own means of demanding and getting plebiscites.

Apart from the right to recall incumbent politicians and require them to submit themselves to fresh elections before their term is up (famously, this resulted in the replacement of governor Gray Davis by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003), they can also get referendums to veto laws passed by the state government, or to get new laws put on the statute book, or to amend the state constitution.

Very basically, what is required to get these processes rolling is a petition signed by 5 per cent (8 per cent in the case of a constitutional amendment) of the number of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. Translated into Scottish parliamentary terms and taking votes cast for constituency MSPs in 2011 as the benchmark, this would mean 99,461 valid signatures would need to be collected for a referendum on a stature law change, and 159,137 for a constitutional amendment plebiscite.

In California, it seems quite an easy process. In 2012, there were no less than 13 referendums. To prevent people being asked to go to the ballot box too often, the referendums are held on the same day as state or federal elections. Of the 13 proposals, six were approved, including one limiting the number of terms a state legislator can serve and another temporarily raising income and sales taxes to pay for education and public safety initiatives. Among the seven failures was one seeking to abolish the death penalty.

If the written constitution of an independent Scotland, which Mr Salmond proposes to have, were to include this form of direct democracy, I reckon it would go a long way to cheering up all those depressed anti-EU, anti-Nato, anti-monarchy, anti-other stuff nationalists. Their vision of independence, apparently ruled out by Mr Salmond, becomes possible.

Mr Salmond’s independence manifesto would only be the default or starting position. He could declare that his government will stick to it and maintain it, but the democratic reality would be that the people could thereafter take charge and change it as they liked.

It’s what I meant when I said in a recent column that independence should be seen as a process, not an event, a comment dismissed by the more obtuse online nationalist critics as meaningless. It isn’t. It is recognition of the fact that the independence which suits Scotland now isn’t necessarily going to be what suits either the people of, or the circumstances of, Scotland in ten, 20, or 30 years.

And it also offers a radical vision of Scotland as a European pioneer of direct democracy, leaving tired old top-down Westminster-style politics for an entirely new state in which the people would have real sovereignty and real power.